In 1970 the Harley Sportster had only recently been de-throned as the most potent machine on two wheels. Equaled by new British machines such as BSA and Triumph Triples and the Norton Commando, and eclipsed by the Honda 750 and Kawasaki 500, the "CH" could still acquit itself well with light modifications. The model I had was typical of the hot rod, "engine and two wheels" philosophy that characterized Harley's approach to performance. Weight still mattered to HD in those days, and the XLCH, unlike the XL, saved weight by foregoing a battery and, of course, an electric starter. Sparks were generated quite ably (under most conditions) by a Fairbanks Morse magneto of basically the same type that graced all sorts of industrial and agricultural power plants. The carburetor (you only got one) was a butterfly valve Linkert with a square float bowl on one side and an adjustable main jet. The throttle pull was feather light. My bike had high handlebars ("ape hangers") with a quick throttle replacing the scroll type that was fitted at the factory.
I bought this bike from my buddy Tommy Jacobs. Tommy and I had become friends about a year earlier largely due to our common bond of BSA ownership. His BSA was a beautiful, rare, green, twin carburetor 500 twin (A50). It was a very elegant machine, with 19 inch rims at both ends. As sharp looking as Tommy's 500 was, it wouldn't quite run with my 650, even when my bike had only one carb. Tommy soon got rid of his BSA in favor of a Honda CL350, which he some months later traded straight up for the Sportster, or so he said. The bad part of the deal was that Tommy tipped the scales at about 135 pounds, and kicking over the Sportster was a task that seriously taxed Tommy's smallish body. Often he would just wait until friends, hopefully large, came over so that he would have some extra legs available to prod the beast to life. When he eventually tired of this dependence he sold the machine to me.
Starting the Sportster presented me no particular challenge. I immediately relished the additional power it offered, and compared to the BSA it was a smooth, comfortable machine. But troubles soon loomed. During my first weekend of ownership, the frame came apart below the seat, with two small downtubes pulling loose from the cast iron fitting that Harley used to join those tubes together with the backbone tube as well as to hold the upper shock mounts, fender brackets, and front seat mount. While this obviously presented a highly dangerous situation that had to be immediately fixed, my riding buddies talked me into going for a general rebuild.
The main concern in rebuilding a Sportster is the connecting rod big end bearings. Sportsters, like all Harley V-twins, use a bolted-together crankshaft, one-piece connecting rods and large, complicated roller bearings at the bottom of the two connecting rods. The bearings are unusual because the connecting rods are a fork-and-knife design, with one connecting rod split so that the other end fits inside it. This makes it possible to place the cylinders directly in line, eliminating rocking vibration and facilitating the use of a single carburetor. The diagnosis on my bearings was that they needed replacement. So did my piston rings. The transmission also needed help, since the shifter forks were badly worn and the little rollers on the forks were gone completely.
Lindsay was the mechanical expert in my circle of friends at that time, and he guided me through the rebuild. I bought a new crank, complete with rods, from a guy named Pete that worked in a head shop (Antelope Freeway). Actually, this stuff wasn't new, but Lindsay said they were better than what I had. Honing of the cylinders for the new rings was accomplished by hand using emery cloth. When we removed the heads we found that one of the inlet valves had beaten itself deeply into the seat, so I had a Harley shop fit one of the new, larger 1 15/16 valves. This was a straightforward task, since the cast iron heads had no separate valve seat inserts. I had the frame welded, shot on some funky green paint from aerosol cans, and started putting it all back together in the basement of the apartment building of another friend. While Lindsay, Joel and I were working on my motor one afternoon, a large rat came running by and hid behind some ladders leaned against a wall. I handed Lindsay a long screwdriver and he dispatched the rodent with a few sudden jabs through the rungs of the ladder. That was the only time I'd ever heard a rat scream. When the motor was back together, with the exception of the primary drive, carburetor and generator, I hauled the mass outside to slide it into the frame. I was pretty much oblivious to the possibility of back injury, even though my father was a chiropractor.
Once back on the road, I began to partake the full Harley-Davidson experience. In the early 1970's this typically included lots of noise, moderate amounts of vibration, plenty of hard riding, and breakdowns which occurred in proportion to the amount and enthusiasm of the riding. But the power was intoxicating! The Sportster made potentially injurious amounts of horsepower from about 2 RPM. After the weak, slipping, dragging clutch of the BSA, the Sportster's unit was spectacular. It was a multiplate dry unit employing drive plates made by Raybestos out of solid asbestos compound. The design was much like other motorcycle clutches, except for being bigger. It ran inside the primary drive oil bath, kept dry (for a while, at least) by a pressed steel cover held to the clutch hub by about ten small screws. This clutch, with a nice, beefy clutch cable and a generously proportioned aluminum lever, was the best unit to be fitted to a bike until the Norton Commando came along in the late '60's. The lever pull was deceptively light. But the wimpy first impression was immediately corrected when the clutch was dumped and the CH's heavy flywheels started the rear wheel spinning in a fury of squealing rubber, twitching and surging, and deep, throbbing exhaust noise, accompanied by the acrid smell from the overstressed conjunction of tire and road and an impressive, and expensive, black stripe pointing the general direction of your dramatic departure. Now we're having fun!
Sportster power was good for other types of dramatic displays, as well. Wheelies were yet another form of semi-antisocial behavior with which to impress one's fellows and the general public. Second gear wheelies at about thirty miles an hour kept the wheel off the ground for a thrilling amount of time, and getting the wheel really high at that speed never failed to give me the sort of rush that can only be duplicated by a near-death experience - which it probably was. All of this horsing around would eventually take its toll on the mechanicals, these old Sportsters having an Achilles heal in the way in which their rear sprocket was attached to the brake hubs. The rivets had a bad habit of breaking on high-horsepower machines or even standard bikes subjected to "spirited" riding. The fix I employed was to merely drill out the holes and fit larger rivets.
The off-idle power of the Harley led to one embarrassing incident. I was talking to a friend named Vincent Banks outside his home, sitting on my parked bike. When I decided to leave, I stood alongside (some Sporty riders liked to kick from astride their machines, but I found I could deliver a more potent thrust from the side, without risking striking the inside of my leg on the top of the shock) and gave the big, flat rubber pedal a firm kick, which produced the desired rumble of mechanical life forces. I blipped the throttle, as customary, which somehow stimulated the transmission to shift itself from neutral to first gear. Given ample torque available, the motor refused to die, instead lurching the machine forward. I came along, naturally, struggling to keep the machine upright and trying to reach the clutch lever on the side opposite where I was. Since this trip was begun with me parked crossways in a short driveway, I careened down the sidewalk until I managed to guide the beast up the steep lawn and lay it down.
Fires became a problem on my Sportster. Harleys are the only bikes I have ever seen catch fire. My first fire episode came when I started it up outside of Burger King one afternoon. At that time I was using the original Linkert carb and air cleaner, although the wire mesh element might have been removed. The stock XLCH tank had a vent tube that ran from the filler neck down to an exit on the bottom of the tank. In later models this tube was piped to some inlet on the Tillotson carb, but my bike just had this bare little tube sticking out of the bottom. This one afternoon the motor backfired through the carb and set light to the gasoline vapors venting from the tank! It made a nice little lamp, but I was too terrified at the imminent prospect of fiery conflagration to fully appreciate it. After considering the possibilities for a moment, I crossed my fingers and blew out the small flame.
I managed to escape the fire threat that time, but on a couple of other occasions I wasn't so lucky. One rainy summer afternoon I was in downtown St. Louis with my buddy Gant, a high-school basketball coach who rode a chopped BSA A-10. When I kicked it over, the SU carb was suddenly engulfed in flames. Our efforts to extinguish the fire were fruitless until a passerby threw his nylon windbreaker over the entire right side of the engine. I was pleasantly surprised when the fires died before his jacket melted. I owed this stranger a big debt of gratitude! The problem was gasoline leaking down from the carb onto the plastic magneto cap, which apparently had some fine cracks which allowed sparks to arc across. There was no serious damage done this time, but somehow I managed to repeat the episode some days later. This time I was on a residential street, riding around with James Brison, probably trying to find some girl's house. As I started the motor, it was like deja vu all over again. This time in a stroke of luck I found a sprinkler on the lawn of the house in front of which I was parked. I raced to the rear of the house and turned on the water, then doused the flames. This time, however, ignition wires and fuel lines were toast, and Jim had to tow me home behind his CB750. I did then fix the problem by applying a big ugly glop of plastic filler to the entire rear half of the magneto cap. I was a little distrustful of this fix, however, not to mention the aesthetic considerations, so I eventually broke down and had my friend Steve Collector order me a whole new magneto. He got it for me wholesale, since he worked at an auto parts store. This drastic decision was helped along by the fact that the old magneto also had a chewed-up tach drive and a broken shaft housing.
Being young and relatively inexperienced while having in my possession an aging but still dangerous piece of two-wheeled dynamite made for some "interesting" experiences. Fortunately, I didn't fall much. The CH didn't really inspire its rider to play Cal Rayborn, especially with the poor condition of my front forks, which seemed to be perpetually devoid of damping oil (Harley didn't believe in fork seals on these old all steel units). The staggered dual mufflers looked good, but hung down far enough to drag around right handers with very little effort. This happened at relatively low speed around a city corner (Natural Bridge and Vandeventor - right outside Beaumont High School) one time, jacking up the rear wheel and sliding out a couple of feet. Disaster was averted as I steered into the skid and was in good shape when the rear tire re-aquatinted itself with the road. It certainly looked impressive, but I'm not sure if my facial expression wouldn't have given away the slight dread that I felt as I realized that for one instant I was not in control.
The Sportster mufflers were less than paragons of efficiency. Their cores were essentially perforated tubes with a blocking baffle set in the middle. Exhaust gasses would bounce off the baffle and somehow have to find their way out the small holes in the pipe. The gasses then re-entered the pipe through other small holes before exiting the rear of the muffler. This time-honored design produced a deceptively powerful sounding roar, but in fact the quieter, uglier interconnected mufflers were less restrictive and gave better power. Of course, I avoided the issue for some time by merely running straight pipes, just like the racers. Well, maybe not just like the racers. My "straights" were actually chromed tailpipe extensions from Grandpa's, a local discount store, clamped onto the beaten and blued stock header pipes. At one point I briefly tried "baffled extensions," which were short, chromed pipes with what proved to be very restrictive little baffles jammed into them. Top speed with these "mufflers" was 80 MPH. My ultimate exhaust system used the later model header pipes that were connected at the rear before giving two outlets one atop the other. To these I attached a couple of upswept megaphone mufflers, which yielded a look slightly reminiscent of the Honda 750 mufflers, with a pleasing, inoffensive rumble and good power.
The Sportster had a few quaint, charming quirks that distinguished it. I especially liked the way the kickstarter could double as a kickstand. This trick came in handy when working on the left side of the motorcycle and you needed to have it tilted over the other way. It didn't have a tool box, but a few wrenches could be wrapped in a rag and tucked securely between the rear motor mount and the oil tank. Some of the parts, such as the seals in the pushrod towers, could be found at any good hardware store. The horn button and high beam switches did not clamp onto the handlebars in the normal fashion, but instead were attached with screws that went into holes drilled into the bars, the wires routed neatly inside. Sheet metal screws also saw service on the rear rim, where they performed the same duty as rim locks, preventing the tire from squirming around on the rim and pulling the valve out of the tube.
Harleys seem to be made to be modified, and the CH was no exception. The abundance of low-end power was an open invitation to try to trade off some of this grunt for high-end power which would put all those riders of Honda 750's and Kawasaki 500's back in their place. My first efforts in that direction, not counting the exhaust system modifications, was the replacement of the 1 ½" Linkert carb with an English SU unit with a larger, 1 ¾" bore. Normally fitting a larger carb results in a loss of low end performance and response, as the air speed through the carb is lower at any given engine speed. But the SU operated on the vacuum principle, being what is called a "constant velocity" design. The large slide and the accompanying needle were raised by vacuum through the throat. The intent of this design was to prevent a sudden opening of the throttle from causing such a drastic drop in vacuum that the engine would stop sucking gas and die, or at least run rough. With its old Linkert carb, you could kill the motor with a sudden jerk of the throttle, opening the butterfly valve so quickly that vacuum would drop to virtually nil. Similar behavior with the SU would result in the butterfly valve opening all the way, but the round slide only admitting more air and fuel as the air flow increased. It worked great, and with the larger throat diameter, top-end horsepower seemed to be increased, as well. Unfortunately, there was a little more room under the hood of the Volvo where my SU originated than between my right leg and the Sportster's cylinder heads, so my knee fought a continual battle for space with the open carburetor inlet. This being 1970, my legs wielded big bell-bottoms in this battle, with the occasional result that my pant leg would get sucked into the carb inlet and, if I were going slowly I would lurch to a halt.
The final form of my Sportster came about in the winter of 1971, when I fitted the engine with dual carbs and a big bore kit. I bought the heads and carbs as a set The carbs were Del'Orto GP units with huge remote floats and 38mm bores. They fit onto sleeves welded onto the stock Sportster cast iron heads. Both carbs came out on the same side, with beautiful aluminum velocity stacks that menaced my knee even more than the old SU. But boy, what a mean looking setup! The carbs splayed slightly, and the rear unit had to be canted slightly so that the bottom would clear the magneto. These Del'Ortos demanded large, 3/8" fuel hose, and with all the plumbing going to the float bowls and then to the carburetor, the whole look was very busy and racy. Since these were racing carbs, they had no chokes, not to mention air filters. They fed ported and polished heads, which featured 2" intake valves, reflecting 1960's Sportster hot rod philosophy, which discounted the value of flow speed in favor of "bigger is better." Later machines, even the monster motors, would generally stick to the slightly smaller 1 15/16" valves. The air had to flow through a 90 degree turn to reach these huge valves, but the passages were so beautifully finished that it was hard to believe that there was much of a penalty for this deviation from the ideal. These heads were stamped "SS," which I assumed might indicate some relation to the "S&S" of Harley carburetor fame, but I never tracked down their maker.
The big bore kit came from Truett and Osborne in, I think, Kansas. This was an exchange job, wherein I sent them a pair of old cylinders and they returned a pair with a thin steel sleeve that gave the extra 3/16" of bore necessary to get the displacement up to a full 998cc's. Not a big jump over the stock displacement, but for the price not a bad deal considering you got new, 10-1 pistons with molybdenum rings. I was not a big fan of ultra-high compression in Sportsters after reading a little about the adverse effects caused by high piston crowns impeding the flow of incoming gasses. With the Harley's deep, perfectly hemispherical heads, 12-1 pistons looked like they could be used to split logs. I did have the inlet side of the pistons relieved a little in consideration of the 2" valves I was using, but my fears that the valves and pistons would get too friendly proved unwarranted. To move the valves I chose Harleys PB cams, which were pretty good all around cams, but not nearly as wild as some of the Sifton cams that were available. Even with the PB's, though, I experienced copious fuel standoff, with almost every pair of pants I had eventually displaying a stained lower right leg from the gas that would mist from the carbs at lower engine speeds.
With these engine mods, the CH was no longer a very smooth runner at lower engine speeds. These Del'Ortos lacked anything like a normal idle adjustment. The only thing you could do was fiddle with the cables. The absence of a choke added an extra step to the starting sequence. Before any serious attempt was made to start a cold motor, it was first necessary to kick it through while holding a hand over one carb, "hand choking" the engine.
In the winter of '72/'73 the Sportster went into dry-dock (my basement) for a mostly cosmetic makeover. I laid on my first Afro color paint scheme, in metalflake. Shortly after putting it back on the road I added late model shocks, rear wheel and exhaust system, and a 22 tooth countershaft sprocket for more relaxed cruising. I had visions of acquiring a Honda front end, primarily for the disk brake, but this ambition remained unfulfilled. I rode the now thoroughly radical Sporty around in 1973, but was dogged by a persistent problem with third gear. It would pop out of third at anything more than half throttle. Being now flush with cash from my first full-time job as a parole officer ($472 a month!), I employed Lindsay to fix the problem once and for all. At this time Lindsay was hanging around some young people (Lindsay was in his mid-30's) that lived in an apartment building in the suburbs. My new profession as a kind-of/sort-of law enforcement officer was generally accepted without concern among that circle of friends, despite the often open use of drugs and a "relaxed" view of many other legal proscriptions, as well. Lindsay's new friends were two women and a man living in an apartment complex near the airport. These were not luxury digs. The man was employed as a handyman/caretaker at the complex, and he bragged about the impression he would make on the manager when he put on his short hair wig and a official looking shirt and patrolled the complex with his police dog. In fact, this guy was probably the very sort of person the manager would not want to have living there, but looks can be deceiving. He also kept a large snake, which fit his image (the real one). I had the distinct misfortune of riding in the back of a Ford Pinto with this guy at the wheel. He was one of those drivers that liked to tailgate any motorist that was impeding his progress. I may get a little close, but never as close as this fellow did, not at 75 mph on I-70. Being a passenger deprived me of any feeling of control and security. The situation was only redeemed in any sense by the pleasure I derived out of being crammed into the back of this dinky little car with a particularly pretty young thing. I saw this guy one more time, I think, some months later at a Bob Dylan concert. He reported having big legal problems.
Lindsay did succeed in repairing my third gear. Shortly thereafter I took a trip down to Jefferson City, about 150 miles outside of St. Louis, to attend training at the Highway Patrol academy. The little peanut tank only held slightly more than two gallons, so even a trip of this length could not be made without a couple of gas stops. In truth, seventy-five miles at a stretch was plenty on the CH, or most machines of its era. By that time you needed relief from the noise and vibration anyway, so the meager fuel capacity was not the sore point it might have been on a more comfortable machine. Funny how things work out sometimes, isn't it? I rode around a little during the days I was in Jefferson City, but, the clutch performance was spoiling my fun. For some time I had been experimenting with wet clutch plates. I had been having problems keeping the stock dry plates dry. Some problems along this line are normal, but mine got worse after I replaced the starter gear on the back of the clutch hub. This gear and the one which engaged it were renown for wearing out regularly, with the result that the kickstarter would not engage reliably. When these gears went on the fritz, all or the energy which the usually athletic Sportster rider focused on the kickstarter pedal could be, in an instant, turned against the operator as the pedal flew down against no resistance. The frequent result was that, at the bottom of the arc, the pedal continue forward while the foot stamped into the pavement with a sickening, slapping noise. The pedal would, then, add further insult by whipping back to strike the poor rider in the shin. Magneto ignition Sportsters were never easy to start, and my hot-rod version demanded even more athleticism. One morning it kicked back and knocked the heel off my shoe. It landed in my front yard 20 feet away. Such antics made the electric -start XLH the preferred option among the growing number of riders graduating from milquetoast Japanese machines.
On kick-start Sportsters all the considerable energy delivered to the kickstarter was routed through a short-lived gear attached to the inside of the clutch hub by means of rivets. After I replaced this gear I had continual problems keeping oil out of the clutch hub. Then I somehow managed to shear all the rivets, meaning that I had to bump start, no mean feat on that bike. I then failed to exploit this second opportunity to get the clutch sealed properly. Oil rendered the asbestos clutch disks useless, although, if one was careful, they could be sometimes pressed back into service after re-surfacing. The asbestos particles from these sanding operations will probably kill me one day, but, what the hell, I was saving $3 a disk. If the disks were thinned sufficiently, an extra disk could be added. After going through enough disks, I gave in and tried some wet units, although memories of my BSA experience kept me from being at all optimistic.
OK, back to Jefferson City: Adjusting the wet clutch was always a compromise. With the adjuster turned in far to prevent the clutch from dragging, it seemed to slip under power because it was not fully engaged. Sportsters used 3 rods which ran through the transmission shaft to push out the clutch cover plate when the lever was pulled. If the adjuster was too tight, the ends of these rods would be constantly pressed and spun against each other, leading them to eventually weld themselves together. I had months earlier experienced a mild case of this, so when I thought there would be no need for it, I loosened the clutch cable to ensure plenty of free play. I did just that on my way home from Jefferson City, going south on Highway 94, a pleasant two-lane blacktop. It sure didn't look like I'd need to stop for quite a few miles, but then I came upon a road crew. I hurriedly turned the clutch adjuster and, as I coasted to a stop, tried to nudge the beast into neutral. That failing, I held the clutch in and hoped for a short stop, since I apparently hadn't screwed the clutch adjuster enough. Soon I had to get on the brakes, as the clutch got hotter and started to drag even more with the expansion of the plates. At some point I just gave up and let off the brakes to coast to the shoulder. I was a bit surprised at the speed I picked up when I released the brakes, and wished once again that I had taken the time to re-install that kill switch the bike originally came with. As I got onto the shoulder, I got on the front brake, only to have the wheel wash out in the gravel. I dropped it lightly on the right side, going so slowly that I just stepped off. I thought no harm was done, even cosmetically, although any time the right side, with its heavy complement of exotic carburetors, came into contact with the ground, I was concerned. When traffic was again allowed to pass, I fired it up and went on my way. For a while, anyway. Soon it became obvious that something was desperately wrong. It became totally impossible to keep the bike in gear. I struggled on for some number of miles, in the hope that, once I got onto I-70, I could somehow get it up into fourth and just cruise the one hundred miles home. I did make it to I-70, just barely, but by then the shifter was totally floppy and no amount of fiddling would get the gears working again. Fortunately, once I got on the highway, I was fairly certain I could flag down a co-worker who was driving back to St. Louis in a pick-up truck. This plan, at least, worked like a charm.
As soon as the problems started, I pretty much knew that that little spill, which didn't even chip the paint or scuff the handlebar grips, had done in the Sportster's delicate shifter mechanism. When I got home, I found out the exact parts that had failed. When the bike hit the ground, the right side footpeg had folded and the shifter had been pushed back into the transmission. It wouldn't seem like this shaft could go very far with the lever bottoming out against the engine cover, but it must have moved enough to damage the aluminum carrier mechanism that held the slotted shifter cam and the associated ratchet mechanism. When I removed the transmission I found that the end of the carrier was broken clean off. That was the second unit that had failed on me, although the previous one had just cracked. In addition I had already, at various times, had one of the ratchet springs break, one of the ratchet pawls had just stuck for no apparent reason, and I had broken off the little ball on the end of the shifter shaft. By now I was pretty fed up. I was just going to go out and get one of those nice, modern, probably Japanese bikes.
My period as a Harley rider was a time of personal transition. While it is fun to recall the joy of riding a powerful and idiosyncratic machine, life is ultimately about people. My memories of the machine cannot compare with thoughts of the people I met while riding it, and especially of the ladies I transported on that beast. Jane Lipke was smart and pretty and always a pleasure to be with. Janis Hart was enthusiastic about life and all kinds of people. Bessie didn't know how not to have fun, and the ceramic heart the beauteous Betsy presented to me was molded into the CH's rear fender. Talented Yvonne loved people and animals. Patricia Banks was a human tornado, and Jocelyn Wilkens gave me some interesting experiences. Most of this could have happended on any machine, but for me the trigger for all these pleasant memories will always be the Harley-Davidson Sportster.
Copyright 1998 by Patrick Inniss. All rights reserved.